UC ANR, local nonprofit grow community health in Inland Empire garden

Partnering for California

A volunteer recovering from a drug addiction gives time regularly to help stay sober. An older person uses outdoor spaces to stay active, physically and socially, despite mobility issues. And a mother of four strives to teach her children what carrots look like before they become capsules in plastic bags.

While these San Bernardino County residents enjoy their hours within their community garden, the lessons and inspiration they derive travel much farther – forming the branches and roots of a stronger, healthier community.

Hence the name of this unique place in Ontario, the Seeds of Joy Community Garden.

“The goal is to not just grow in the garden, but to grow the community outside the gates as well,” said UC Master Gardener Elizabeth McSwain, whose nonprofit, Caramel Connections Foundation, has nurtured this project from its beginnings in 2018 as a small plot within the Huerta del Valle Garden.

The programs and classes were so well-received that McSwain and her partners and volunteers opened in April 2021 a much larger, 1-acre space within Anthony Muñoz Hall of Fame Park.

As a self-described “green heart with a brown thumb,” McSwain said the success of the garden would not be possible without the support of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (ANR) staff and volunteers.

McSwain, a restaurant owner, founded Caramel Connections Foundation in 2016 to offer culinary and healthy eating classes at the local Boys & Girls Club. During her first-ever visit to a community garden to attend a “herbs as medicine” class taught by UC Master Gardener Valerie Dobesh, McSwain had a life-changing conversation at an information table.

Maggie O'Neill, the UC Master Gardener program coordinator for UCCE in San Bernardino County, patiently answered McSwain's many questions about the program, which trains volunteers to spread research-based knowledge on home horticulture, pest management and sustainable landscape practices. 

“In regards to planting the seed in my heart, I can never say enough about Maggie,” McSwain said, “because Maggie's passion and her knowledge about gardening made me feel like…even though I didn't have the skill set, she made me feel as if I would be a good candidate for the Master Gardener program.”

McSwain graduated from the program in March 2021, equipped with the expertise to better support the volunteers and participants in an ever-blossoming variety of programs that serve a broad swath of the community.

“One of the key founding principles of this garden from the very beginning has been inclusivity and making sure that all community members feel welcome, celebrating many cultures, ethnicities and religions,” O'Neill said. “Elizabeth has made sure that the partners and organizations that are supporting this garden are equally diverse and inclusive so that the community members are able to see themselves represented in the people who are helping to bring this garden together.”

Seeds of Joy now features a Zen garden with succulents to raise drought awareness, a Read in Color Little Free Library emphasizing diverse cultural connections, a composting/vermicomposting bin system to highlight waste diversion (with a small orchard), a story time area for children, an outdoor classroom, a space for yoga classes, and an outdoor community kitchen that helps produce meals for facilities serving individuals and families experiencing homelessness.

“With food insecurity being such a major problem for San Bernardino County in general, even prior to COVID, the current epidemic of poor nutrition in our children is weakening the strength of our community,” McSwain explained. “We hope to play a part in helping to fix that in some way – healthy food and fitness are powerful essentials that are often overlooked.”

Residents of low-income housing units across the street will have priority for reserving plots in the heart of the garden – approximately 30 raised beds for growing fresh, organic produce. Although completion of those beds has been delayed due to COVID impacts, applications have already been coming in.

“Ultimately our goal is to teach Inland Empire families what's involved in maintaining an edible garden,” McSwain said. “We provide them with the basic tools.”

In addition to UC Master Gardener-led classes, other UC ANR programs are contributing to this educational hub within a historically underserved neighborhood. The Master Food Preserver Program volunteers will be offering workshops on how to safely preserve the community garden's harvests, while EFNEP (Expanded Food and Nutrition Program) educators will teach about eating nutritious, delicious food in a budget-conscious way.

“Our programs are a great complement to the garden and to each other because we teach people how to grow their own food, then teach them how to preserve it and how to make lifestyles changes for healthier, happier families,” O'Neill said. “With all of these classes offered free to the community through the UCCE, we are able to add incredible value to an already great project.”

Already, O'Neill has been showing community members how to “companion plant” – maximizing the limited space residents have to work with, by placing ecologically compatible plants next to each other so that they can mutually flourish.

Companion gardening is a fitting analogy for the power of collaboration – with local officials, community and corporate partners, and organizations such as UC ANR – in growing spaces and resources for the benefit of the entire community.

“Partnering with the Master Gardener program and the Master Food Preserver Program and EFNEP is the perfect partnership in that we're all trying to do the same thing,” McSwain said. “We're trying to help people make better choices and to give them the tools so that they can live better lives, and not necessarily have to rely on spending $500 at the grocery store to get organic products, and making a choice between paying your light bills or buying food.”

McSwain welcomes all community members to participate, engage, and visit the Seeds of Joy garden, located at 1240 W. Fourth St. in Ontario.

“I don't want it to be a secret garden,” she said. “We want the community to know that it's there for them, that it's there to enhance their life – to reduce the disparities in our community and to be able to just spark a love of gardening and bring joy.”

In addition to support from UC ANR programs, Seeds of Joy is made possible by the City of Ontario (Mayor Paul Leon, City Council, and former City Manager Al Boling), American Beverage Association, Beola's Southern Cuisine, CalRecycle, Huerta del Valle Garden, Inland Empire Health Plan (IEHP), Inland Empire Resource Conservation District, Kellogg Garden Products, Mercy House, San Bernardino County, SLJ Pro Audio Services – among a host of other community partners.